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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Ezekiel 31

Verse 1

THE EXAMPLE OF ASSYRIA WAS A WARNING TO EGYPT

The source of the features of this allegory is not to be sought in Babylonian mythology, as supposed by May, nor should we believe that "The Garden of God" referred to herein is a reference "to a mythological `Garden of Eden.'"[1]

The background of the chapter was the historical situation of those times, namely, on June 21,587. B.C.,[2] which was only a couple of months before the fall of Jerusalem,[3] and less than twenty-five years after the dramatic fall of Nineveh to Babylon in 612 B.C.[4] "The fall of the great Assyrian empire was still fresh in the memory of those times, and it could not have failed to make a deep impression upon the minds of Ezekiel's hearers."[5]

No one can fail to be aware of the two different interpretations of this chapter, each of which has its advocates. (1) Some understand the lofty cedar as a description of Pharaoh, an understanding involving an emendation of the Hebrew text. (2) Others understand Assyria as being meant by the lofty cedar. Fortunately, the meaning of the chapter is exactly the same either way. The disgraceful end of the proud Pharaoh is prophesied in either interpretation. We shall explore these views further under Ezekiel 31:3, below:

Our own position favors the view of accepting Assyria as represented by the beautiful, lofty cedar. We favor this because both our version (ASV) and the KJV alike translate the text with this clear meaning. Some of the greatest scholars of our day have warned us that, "For purposes of accurate study, the American Standard Version of 1901 is the best of all the versions." Furthermore, the New English Bible retains the same meaning with KJV and American Standard Version; and, as even some of the advocates of the other view have pointed out,

The old interpretation is by no means indefensible. As it stands in the Hebrew and in all the ancient versions, the whole chapter is a description of the greatness, not of Egypt, but of Assyria. Thus Assyria is compared to the great cedar, and then Egypt is compared to Assyria. That the fate of Assyria contained a warning against the pride of Pharaoh is a thought in itself intelligible, and is just the kind of thought that Ezekiel might very well have expressed.[6]

In addition to this, the ensuing description fits Assyria much better than it fits Egypt, as we shall note, below.

The divisions of the chapter, easily discernible, are: (1) the description of the mighty cedar (Ezekiel 31:1-9); (2) its disastrous overthrow (Ezekiel 31:10-14); and (3) the consequences of it (Ezekiel 31:14-17); and (4) the God-given answer to the question raised in Ezekiel 31:2 (Ezekiel 31:18).

THE LOFTY CEDAR

Ezekiel 31:1-9

"And it came to pass in the eleventh year, in the third month, in the first day of the month, that the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, Son of man, say unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, and to his multitude: Whom art thou like in thy greatness? Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a forest-like shade, and of high stature, and its top was among the thick boughs. The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow; the rivers thereof ran about its plantation; and it sent out its channels unto all the trees of the field; and its boughs were multiplied, and its branches became long by reason of many waters, when it shot them forth. All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; and under its branches did all the beasts of the field bring forth their young: and under its shadows dwelt all great nations. Thus was it fair in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its root was by many waters. The cedars in the garden of God could not hide it; the fir trees were not like its boughs, and the plane-trees were not as its branches; nor was any tree in the garden of God like unto it in its beauty. I made it fair by the multitude of its branches, so that all the trees of Eden, that were in the garden of God envied it."

"Whom art thou like in thy greatness ..." (Ezekiel 31:2)? This question declares the following description to be of a person whom Pharaoh is "like," not a description of Pharaoh.

"The Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon ..." (Ezekiel 31:3). A cedar in Lebanon cannot possibly refer to Egypt. Lebanon was a province of Assyria. Nevertheless, "the emenders" of God's Word emended Assyria out of the passage, making it read: "Behold, I will liken you to a cedar in Lebanon." (Revised Standard Version). Any one can see, that if this change was correct, the initial question would have been, "What art thou like?" not "Whom art thou like?"

Nevertheless, Beasley-Murray explained the emendation thus: "The initial letter of t'assur (cedar) fell out leaving assur (meaning Assyria). The context clearly shows that Pharaoh is in mind."[7] This is a beautiful theory, but there is no proof of it. The Hebrew and all the ancient versions read as does our text in ASV; and we are unwilling to allow the present generation of scholars to revise the Bible to make it read like what they thought the author "was trying to say." As long as the ancient text is understandable as it stands, such emendations are absolutely contraindicated.

"The waters nourished it, the deep made it to grow ..." (Ezekiel 31:4). 'The deep' here was understood by Bunn as, "the primordial waters beneath the earth, the deep which figures so largely in Babylonian mythology." Such nonsense should be rejected with contempt.

The fundamental reason why such allegations as that just cited cannot be allowed by true believers is that the allowance of such a thing would mean that God Himself, the true author of Ezekiel, accepted and allowed as truth the monstrous Babylonian myth concerning a great subterranean ocean. To inject that myth into the prophecy leaves Ezekiel as the ignorant author of it; it leaves God out of it altogether, and raises the question that if Ezekiel was wrong about this, why should he be trusted in anything else found in the prophecy?

"The `deep' which nourished the growth of Assyria was nothing less than the tremendous source of waters provided by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers."[8]

And it sent out its channels unto all the trees of the field ..." (v. 4). These were undoubtedly the elaborate system of canals that pertained to the Euphrates, and perhaps also to the Tigris. We should notice how the modern crop of perverters of God's Word, once they start fiddling with the text, branch out in all directions. The Good News Bible, for example translates this verse,

"There was water to make it grow,

And underground rivers to feed it."

There is not a word in this passage about "underground waters," which cannot possibly be represented, as in our text, by the word "channels." What is indicated is that the so-called Good News Bible is giving us Babylonian mythology instead of God's Word!

Having emended Assyria into cedar, Cooke then proceeded to translate it "pine tree," better to fit Egypt."[9] This is another excellent example of how one emendation always leads to others. However, Cooke admitted that, "Nothing could be less suggestive of the land Egypt than the tall cedar trees and scenery of Lebanon."[10] It is sad, however, that he missed the point, namely that the description here is not of Egypt at all, but of Assyria.

The extravagant glory of the great Assyrian empire is fittingly represented here as being the envy even of those trees that God had planted in the garden of Eden. The Assyrian empire had existed since the days of Nimrod; and it was doubtless considered to be as established and permanent as the earth itself; but because of their inordinate pride, cruelty, and sadistic blood-lust, and contrary to all that anyone on earth could possibly have anticipated, they had fallen, totally and completely, to Babylonians in 612 B.C. In verse 18, below, the prophecy would call upon Pharaoh to accept the meaning of that event to him and to Egypt.

Verse 10

"Therefore thus said the Lord Jehovah: Because thou art exalted in stature, and he hath set his top among the thick boughs, and his heart is lifted up in his height; I will even deliver him into the hand of the mighty one of the nations; he shall surely deal with him; I have driven him out of his wickedness. And strangers, the terrible of the nations, have cut him off and left him: upon the mountains and in all the valleys his branches are broken, and his boughs are broken by all the water courses of the land; and all the peoples of the earth are gone down from his shadow, and have left him. Upon his ruin all the birds of the heavens shall dwell, and all the beasts of the field shall be upon his branches; to the end that none of the trees by the waters exalt themselves in their stature, neither set their top among the thick boughs, nor that their mighty one stand up in their height, even all that drink water: for they are all delivered unto death, to the nether parts of the earth, in the midst of the children of men, with them that go down to the pit."

ASSYRIA'S FALL WAS A WARNING AGAINST HUMAN PRIDE

"Thus said the Lord Jehovah ..." (Ezekiel 31:10). Note the past tense. This is a reference to the prophecy of the doom of Assyria, as fully recounted in Nahum. (See my commentary on this, Vol. 3, pp. 3-58.)

Ezekiel 31:10-14 set forth the fall of Assyria in its true status, that is, as a past event, already known to the whole world of that period.

A mighty one of the nations (Nebuchadnezzar) has gone up against it; and we see the great trunk lying prone across valleys and mountains; it has been felled to the earth; the nations have been scared from under its shadow; and the tree which only yesterday might have stood against the whole world now lies prostrate and dishonoured - "none so poor as to do it reverence."[11]

"Here under the figure of the felling of a cedar there is depicted the overthrow of a monarchy and a kingdom that has already taken place."[12] Our chapter is a prophecy of a destruction yet future which is directed against Egypt; and, if any further proof had been needed that this description beginning in Ezekiel 31:3 and continuing through Ezekiel 31:17 cannot possibly be applied to Egypt, this provides it.

"Strangers have cut him off ... have left him ... and have left him ..." (Ezekiel 31:12) The prophecy of Nahum has the prophetic record of how that forsaking of Assyria took place.

Yet they flee away. Stand, stand, they cry, but none looketh back (Nahum 2:8).

Although this destruction is surely coming upon Egypt, the passage here is still recording what has already happened to Assyria. Cooke and others have attempted to interpret this portion of the chapter as written in the prophetic perfects, "have cut it down," meaning "will cut it down."[13] This cannot be correct, because the past tense is contrasted with the future tense in Ezekiel 31:12 and Ezekiel 31:18, as accurately pointed out by Keil.[14]

Ezekiel 31:18 plainly indicates the overthrow of Egypt and his power as still in the future, contrasting dramatically with the felling of the cedar which already had taken place. "Thus destruction of the cedar can only be Assyria, and not Egypt at all."[15]

The certainty of this application to a past event is seen in the fact that, "Ezekiel corrected his allegory to accommodate the past tense. The birds and wild beasts are still there; but instead of dwelling in the boughs, the (vultures, owls, jackals and hyenas) hover and creep over the carcass of the dead, decaying trunk!."[16]

Verse 15

"Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: In the day when he went down to Sheol I caused a mourning: I covered the deep for him, and I restrained the rivers thereof; and the great waters were stayed; and I caused Lebanon to mourn for him, and all the trees fainted for him. I made the nations to shake at the wound of his fall, when I cast him down into Sheol with them that descend into the pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water were comforted in the nether parts of the earth. They also went into Sheol with him unto them that are slain by the sword; yea, they that were his arm, that dwelt under his shadow in the midst of the nations."

A SUMMARY OF THE FALL OF ASSYRIA

"I caused a mourning ..." (Ezekiel 31:15). This came about by the ravages against the remains of the Assyrian empire, by the ruthless armies of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.

"I restrained the rivers thereof ..." (Ezekiel 31:15). This also came about directly upon the fall of Assyria. The terrible floods which had contributed so dramatically to the fall of Nineveh, were promptly dried up.

"When I cast him down into Sheol ..." (Ezekiel 31:16). The end of all mortal pride and ambition in the grave is stressed in these verses.

Verse 18

"To whom art thou thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? yet shall thou be brought down with the trees of Eden unto the nether parts of the earth: thou shalt be in the midst of the uncircumcised, with them that are slain by the sword. This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, saith the Lord Jehovah."

THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION IN EZEK. 31:2

"To whom art thou thus like ..." (Ezekiel 31:18)? "This is the answer to the question that opened the allegory."[17] Jamieson also agreed with this. "Pharaoh's end shall be the same humiliating one, just as I have depicted Assyria's end to have been. Thus the prophet, as it were, points to Pharaoh."[18] The message is clear enough. The same humiliating end that came to Assyria is also stored up for Pharaoh.

There is a tremendous warning here against all human pride, arrogance, and heedless ambition that mortals partake of in their efforts to exalt themselves and to ignore the claims of holiness and righteousness which God imposes upon all who are born into this world, apparently oblivious to the fact that, "We shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ."

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ezekiel 31". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/ezekiel-31.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.